The Intercultural Stories We Tell Ourselves

I recently attended a thought-provoking webinar given by my colleague, Joanna Sell, an expert storyteller, that got me ruminating. What is the narrative we weave in our minds that creates either connection or disconnection with those who are culturally different from us? As I pondered the myriad intercultural adventures—and misadventures—I’ve had in my life, one, in particular, stands out, not because it was exceptional, but because of how I had misperceived someone’s intent and the powerful lesson I eventually learned from it about the kindness of strangers.

To recount all the dramatic details would be much better shared over a bottle of wine, but let’s just say that it involved a motorcycle chase through the rice fields outside of Yogyakarta, Indonesia. I was at the helm of a moped chasing two locals on a powerful motorcycle who had just grabbed my sister’s daypack that was strapped to the front of our moped. After an interminable ride down a dirt road through rice fields, we ended up in a tiny village with the locals gawking at my distraught sister in tears while I attempted to communicate in extremely rudimentary Bahasa. Fast forward several days of bureaucratic nightmare in Jakarta as we unsuccessfully tried to get my sister’s Japanese visa re-issued so she could return to Osaka where she was living.

The real ending to the story, however, was the Balinese artist, Wayan, we had met in Bali a few weeks earlier, who became my sister’s savior after she returned to Bali on her own and I headed off to Kuala Lumpur. After months of traveling throughout southeast Asia, I had been weary of yet another local trying to lure a naïve tourist into some nefarious trap, which usually involved getting swindled. And yet, despite my cynical attitude about Wayan’s initial attempt to sell us his art, he ended up helping my emotionally exhausted sister tremendously for several days by driving her around to various places, giving her a comfortable place to stay and feeding her, and ensuring she was able to get her flight back to Japan.

The moral of this story for me was the importance of checking our biases towards others based on previous experiences and the potential risks when we misrepresent what we think we see. In her powerful TED talk “The Danger of a Single Story”, Nigerian writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, says that when we “show a people as one thing, as only one thing, then that is what they become.” When we tell ourselves stories about “the Other”, we fabricate a reality in our mind that is often rife with stereotypes and misinformation. Yet, when we take the time to truly listen to another’s story, we can break those barriers and form connection, regardless of all the ways we may be different. Our perception can lead to deception.

In today’s multicultural workforce, do the stories you tell yourself reinforce negative stereotypes and create barriers to your collaboration with your colleagues or do you take the time to listen and perhaps even re-frame the story you tell yourself? What are the golden nuggets you are able to discover when you change the narrative by asking those pertinent questions to understand a different point of view? And how might this paradigm shift provide you with a new way of collaborating across cultures?

As the years have gone by and I’ve experienced other mishaps in my travels, I have often reflected on our Indonesian incident and reminded myself that there is never just one story. The more we are trapped into believing that our story is reality, the less open we will be to exploring different perspectives and perhaps being pleasantly surprised by the outcome. What intercultural stories do you tell yourself and tell others?

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Intercultural Alliances, LLC